When wars end, reparations are made. Wrongs are, on paper, made right. By the end of World War II, Denmark, which had served as one of the war’s battlegrounds, had a coast loaded with German landmines. To right this wrong, thousands of German POWs, mostly young men and boys, were sent to defuse the bombs by hand. More than half of them were killed in the process, and many more were left severely injured. Land of Mine (2015) rediscovers this overlooked horror of the Second World War. The film, directed by Martin Pieter Zandvliet, is brilliantly shot, tightly wound, and utterly devastating. It forces an examination of the way lines are drawn between good and bad guys, the winners and losers of war. Land of Mine shows the innocents who were punished for their participation in World War II, and documents their bloodsoaked, often fruitless plight to return home.
Land of Mine focuses on the group of fourteen boys who are sent to the coast under the command of Sgt. Carl Rasmussen (Roland Møller). The film opens with a graphic scene of Rasmussen beating a German soldier for holding a Danish flag as the Germans make their way out of the country. The scene is immediately juxtaposed with unsteady close-ups of the faces of the fourteen on their way to the coast to submit to Rasmussen’s command. This explains Rasmussen’s hatred for his new unit and immediately humanizes the POWs; many of them look like they are no more than 16, and each one dons a face of youthful fear or anxious unknowing, translated through their subtle facial movements and fidgeting hands. The humanization of these young swastika-wearing German soldiers is one of the film’s strongest points. Throughout the film, Zandvliet opts for numerous close-up shots of the boys’ faces and shaking hands. They not only elicit sympathy, but put faces to the hordes of faceless Germans hated by the entire world following the war.
The film tastefully illustrates gore, mercifully allowing some horrors to be bloodless. “Sad” does not describe this film–it is crushing. Just when it lightens for a scene or two, the situation of the boys becomes even more desperate. In the film’s most graphic scene, one of the boys vomits from malnutrition onto the bomb he is defusing. In his haze the boy moves slightly more than the bomb’s temperance will allow, and an explosion breaks the pitiful scene. Some boys run to his side, while the others hang back and watch the horrific moments which follow the realization that the boy is still alive, but missing both arms. In between offers of reassurance, the boys shout desperately for Rasmussen’s help, who is sitting on his bed, listening as the boy screams and sobs for his mother. This is the first of many instances fueling Rasmussen develops from cold hatred of the boys into their protector and defender.
As their plight reaches its darkest point, the boys are dehumanized and demoralized just before Zandvliet pulls them into the light of Rasmussen’s change of heart. The change of tone is welcome and comes complete with establishing shots of the the beach that they are clearing, as well as sequences that are brightly lit. Bleak as the majority of the scenes are, the colors compliment the tone, the lighting and camera movements maintain a feeling of physical closeness to the characters, and the background noises and music effectively cut to bring attention to the image.
Land of Mine is a beautifully, thoughtfully made film with a long-forgotten story to tell. There is not a single bad performance in the entire film, and Roland Møller delivers a captures the complexities of his conflicted character and adds depth to lighter scenes that break up the relentless atrocities. The film is also wound by a tension that always feels ever-present and ensures engagement through to the end. The poignant, emotional scenes between the boys and Rasmussen are few, but are a sweet taste of hope that keep him human and forgivable. Often throughout the film, the boys line up; each time, the line is shorter, and their faces and bodies reflect the tortures they have endured and the reliefs they have been given. Zandvliet ties up this thread subtly in one of the film’s final frames, as the remaining boys run away in disorder from each other and the country that subjected them to their tortures. confirming the attention to detail that went into creating Land of Mine. Foreign films tend to be in large part overlooked by American audiences, and this film illustrates why that is such a shame. This film is impeccably made and tells a horrific story that deserves an audience.
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